Monday, June 19, 2017

Congress planning to lose its hold on Karnataka, too? With boldness (not National Herald) it can win


Even in its glory days, the National Herald never had a South Indian presence. It was always a Delhi-Lucknow entity and knew it. It would have been another inconsequential provincial rag but for its ownership (Jawaharlal Nehru) and its editorship (Chalapathi Rau). Actually, the latter more than the former. While Nehru was an absentee overlord, it was Chalapathi's superior qualities as editor, writer and activist that made the paper a stand-out.

The Delhi-North Indian stamp of the Herald is an unalterable historical reality. Yet, when they decided to launch a commemorative edition of the paper, they chose Bangalore as the launching pad. Strange. Why didn't they pick Delhi where the multistorey Herald House rises proudly in the city's newspaper street, Bahadurshah Zafar Marg? Why not Lucknow, the paper's birthplace and headquarters? Why did they choose a location never associated with the Herald in any way?

The reason of course is that the Congress was playing practical politics. Today's Delhi is unfriendly territory for a Nehru-linked institution. Lucknow would be even more unfriendly with a saffron-clad yogi reigning as the monarch of all he surveys there. Karnataka is a major state where the Congress is unchallenged in power. To hold a launch function there would not only be safe; it would ensure the attendance of government leaders and thus the attention of the entire state administration. That was what happened. The National Herald and Rahul Gandhi were praised skyhigh with the entire state cabinet turning out and the police closing major highways to make it an easy ride for the Congress.

In all fairness, it must be acknowledged that Rahul Gandhi, the star of the show, made a good impression with his speech. Someone had obviously provided timely input, for the Congress scion said that "the power of truth is being completely replaced by the truth of power". He even quoted Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the legendary Soviet era poet, to remind us that "when truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie". Very true. But when the British tried to replace truth with silence, another Gandhi responded with action that found a million tongues.

What does the present Gandhi do? He quoted Yevtushenko, then flew to Delhi and then went off to Italy to spend time, we were told, with his 93-year old grandmother. A sycophant added insult to injury by saying that "attending to aged grandparents is part of Indian culture". Rahul Gandhi is known for his regular disappearances from India. But this was a critical moment, with strategies being worked out for the presidential election, a gathering of opposition leaders taking place and the farmers' agitation in the Hindi heartland growing worse by the day. Rahul chose to ignore all that and become part of Indian culture instead.

That the Congress is in the hands of a part-time leader is the biggest asset of the BJP. Unable to come up with initiatives that enthuse the people, the Congress goes after ideas that confuse them -- like the National Herald commemoration in Bangalore. What was its purpose? Certainly not to revive the paper which is an impossibility. Was it then a move to give a boost to the Congress in Karnataka in preparation for the election next year?

That is going to be a life-and-death election for the Congress. But a gimmick built round a newspaper that is unknown in Karnataka is no way to prepare for so crucial an election. A bold Congress can still fight and win. The key word is bold. It must be bold enough to realise that the incumbency factor alone will lead to its collapse if the present leadership structure continues. A new face and a new promise, on the other hand, can certainly give it a fighting chance.

The Congress can electrify the scene in its favour if it projects Mallikarjun Kharge as its chief ministerial candidate in the next election. He is the only leader in Karnataka with a clean image and his administrative experience is unrivalled. He is also the only Congressman tall enough to keep in check the criminal elements that occupy important positions in the party leadership today. Indeed, Kharge appears to be the only option open to the Congress to keep at least one state under its flag in the South. The question is less whether Kharge can be persuaded to take up the task and more whether the Congress leadership has the ability to understand its plight. The alternative is to go the National Herald way.


Monday, June 12, 2017

With political help, lobbies put chemicals in our diet; BJP must honour its pledge to keep GM food out


Before the power of commercial lobbies, even the BJP government bows. The party's manifesto took a strong stand against GM foods; ignoring it, the Government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) greensignalled genetically engineered mustard in India. GM mustard is known to be more dangerous than GM cotton (which has caused havoc already) and GM brinjal (which was stopped in the nick of time).

Because mustard is used in every household every day in India, its health implications are of special importance to us. GM mustard is an HT (herbicide tolerant) crop. This euphemism means it uses a single herbicide, eventually becoming resistant and necessitating heavy use of chemical herbicide. Such excessive use has been linked to birth defects and childhood cancers. Almost all of Europe has discontinued the GM concept altogether because of health issues.

Why then does India welcome these traps? There are three reasons: The vested interests of politicians, over-enthusiasm of civil servants, and the apparent ease with which watchdogs like GEAC can be compromised. Much of this is facilitated by the world's most powerful lobbying groups which routinely influence US Government policies. (Barak Obama appointed several Monsanto executives in his Government's food and agriculture supervisory bodies).

These lobbies are no less powerful in India. Remember those horrid, heart-wrenching videos of endosulfan victims in Kasargod areas? They are still there -- pitiably malformed children and men with bloated body parts. Every time such pathetic pictures of human suffering appeared on television screens, people would ask: Why doesn't the Government ban endosulfan? And every time Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar was confronted with the question, he would say: We need to do more tests to know if endosulfan is harmful. How thick can political skins get?

Insensitive politicians are aided and abetted by specialists in the Government's planning bodies. Niti Ayog has argued in favour of GM mustard on the ground that the GM technology will substantially increase yield. This is a myth as UN statistics prove. Non-GM users have the highest mustard yield -- Germany, France, UK, Poland, Czech Republic. Way down in the table are GM users -- USA, Canada, Australia. Why did Niti Ayog rely on other self-serving statistics? And why did it ignore social and health issues?

The bigger tragedy is that we cannot be sure of our watchdogs; under pressure, they become promoters rather than preventers of malpractices. India has for long been a victim of this malaise. In 2009 the Food & Safety Standards Authority of India, our only food regulatory body, saw Pepsi and Coca-Cola officials becoming members of panels to judge various technical matters such as sampling methods, additives and flavourings. With a board comprising representatives of the very companies it was supposed to regulate, what safety standards could FSSAI ensure?

Similar manipulations made the GEAC clear GM brinjal in 2009. Monsanto, described by The Guardian of UK as "the world's most hated company", infiltrated the GEAC and also gave various research assignments to field researchers and sundry agricultural scientists in the country. The result was that Monsanto-flavoured research reached the GEAC for Mansanto-flavoured decisions. Activist Kavita Kuruganti publicly charged that the chairman of the Expert Committee appointed to examine the matter was "pressurised by the Agriculture Minister, GEAC and the industry" to clear GM brinjal. We were saved from it only because an alert minister, Jairam Ramesh, put it safely in Trishanku Swarga.

The lobbyists turned smarter this time. They presented GM mustard as the product of a Delhi University team's research. This was followed by another report: The genes that went into the DU mustard was the property of Bayer, a merged part of Monsanto. Three giant corporations including Monsanto-Bayer control both the seeds market and the pesticide market globally. It's a win-win situation for them and Swadeshi scientists, too, necessarily work as their foot soldiers.

The only thing that can be done about technologies based on chemical pesticides is to eliminate them. Reckless use of pesticides in the cotton region of Punjab ruined a generation of farmers. Their tragedy was dramatised by the "cancer train" that took afflicted farmers daily from Bhatinda station to Bikaner (where the Acharya Tulsi cancer institute was more affordable). Biologist Pushpa Bhargava, appointed by the Supreme Court in 2008 to observe the GEAC's functioning, was outraged by the manipulations he saw. "Whatever Monsanto said was God's own word", he said and warned: "If bt. Brinjal is released, it will be the single largest disaster in the country".

Larger still will be the mustard disaster.

Monday, June 5, 2017

BJP approach to cattle trading will hurt the economy; but who cares since the idea is to create vote banks


It's clear: The cow dominates India. The world is changing in radical ways and life-and-death issues confront our country -- GST's impact on everyday life, the "dirty war" in Kashmir, rising attacks on women, crisis in the IT industry, tensions with China. But none of them gets the national attention the cow gets. It is as though the country is meant only for cow worshippers and cow eaters. Religion is the key here as it is in all policy matters nowadays.

(Before we go any further, it is important for this writer to make what is called a disclaimer. I do not eat meat. Of any kind. Can't even stand the sight of it dangling from hooks in wayside stalls. In school days I was in love with Lakshmi, one of three cows in the family shed. She was a real beauty, plump and wholesome and shining deep brown and aglow with a smile, I thought, when she saw me. No one worshipped her, except me, only that my worship was that of a lover).

The most important thing we should know about today's cow debate is that it is not rational. It is emotional and political. This is because the BJP in power believes that it can alter the country's DNA. Remember that legislation for cow protection need not be aggressive. The Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Preservation Act is dated 1964 when Congress stalwart Kengal Hanumanthaiah was the chief minister. Note that it specified cow, without hiding behind terms like cattle as now.

The BJP has given the issue a combative, party-oriented twist. This comes through disastrously in the violence unleashed by cow rowdies: Lynching a citizen on mere suspicion, flogging dalits who skinned dead cattle as per tradition, beating to death a dairy farmer taking his cows home, ABVP activists attacking a student in IIT-Madras for eating beef. That such crimes are committed before cameras and then publicised shows that the criminals are sure of support from law-enforcers. On the record so far, they are right.

No wonder that reason has no chance and partisan emotionalism wins the day. Historian D.N. Jha's 2001 book Holy Cow: Beef in India was a scholarly study. But even before it was out, Hindutva forces declared war. The Government banned the book and the author, facing death threats, was obliged to take police protection. Jha had merely quoted chapter and verse to show that Hindus ate beef in the past.

With the same belligerence with which they attack the facts of the past, communal partisans reject the realities of the present. The economics of cattle farming are of existential importance to India. Farmers who rear cattle must have the facility to sell them at will, hence the thousands of cattle markets in the country. A productive cow (useful in agriculture and dairy work) can get half a lakh of rupees in the market. Once productivity stops, the bovines have no value except in the meat market. To deny this is to hit farmers below the belt.

Farmers who cannot sell cattle profitably, will stop rearing cattle (providing 20 kg of fodder to an animal means Rs 150 a day to the farmer). At the same time the population of stray cattle will increase. This is already visible in Maharashtra and Haryana where the BJP has banned beef. There are no organisations with the ability and the willingness to run goshalas for the tens of thousands of cows that roam shelterless. And what of the industries dependent on various parts of cattle -- skin (India's leather exports earn $ 6 billion a year), bone, horns, tail hair, blood? And the employment given to traders, middlemen, transporters, tanners, cooks? From no angle relevant to the progress of a nation is a cattle trading ban justified. It is not justified even from the point of view of Hindus en masse; many non-Brahmin Hindus are meat eaters. Just as many non-Hindus are vegetarian.

Wouldn't a national programme to promote vegetarianism have been wiser than an arbitrary ban on traditional cattle business? Given the increasing popularity of vegetarian diets across the world, India could play a leadership role in such a programme as it did in the case of Yoga. That would have indirectly led to cow protection as well. Such constructive thinking can of course have no scope if the intention is to divide people and create vote banks. The cow has been reduced to a political tool -- an insult to its holiness.



Monday, May 29, 2017

When Trump calls for a war against Islamic terrorism and praises its historical promoter, it is hypocrisy


Abu Zubaydah, a "high-value" associate of fellow Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden, was captured by America's CIA from a safe house in Pakistan in 2002. (Pakistan's ISI got $ 10 million for services rendered). Badly wounded, Zubaydah was put on painkillers. CIA strategists manipulated the medication until the man was hallucinated into believing that he was in Saudi Arabian custody. Feeling relieved, he gave the "doctors" a telephone number and asked them to call a member of the Saudi royal family to ask for further instructions. He also revealed that the royals had agreed in late 1990s to support bin Laden in return for assurances that the kingdom would be excluded from his jihad. The CIA got to work. Three Saudi leaders and a Pakistani army officer Zubaydah had named died one after another in accidents. All secrets were safe.

Details like these, described in the 2003 book Why America Slept: The failure to prevent 9/11 by Gerald Posner are alarming enough. They get scary when read alongside reports that, after President George Bush proclaimed a no-fly order covering America's entire airspace following the 9/11 attack, a solitary aircraft rose from the Washington area and flew out of American space, safely, unchallenged. It was a Saudi Arabian passenger plane. Few knowledgeable people today doubt that Saudi Arabia was behind the 9/11 terror strike that shook the world. Of the 19 terrorists in the four hijacked planes, 15 were Saudi citizens.

It was from this Saudi Arabia that the new President of the United States appealed to Muslim nations last week to ensure that "terrorists find no sanctuary in their soil". He told what was called the Arab Islamic American Summit (35 Sunni countries friendly with the Saudis) that it was necessary to "honestly confront the crisis of Islamist extremism".

As it happens, Islamist extremism is also a wholly Saudi Arabian contribution. Warring tribal chieftains who established the Saudi dynasty used Wahabism, a violently orthodox reconstruction of Islam, as a ruse to build up their hegemony in the Arabian peninsula. In recent years they have been using it to spread Saudi-Wahabi influence in countries with large Muslim populations. The flow of Saudi money and Saudi evangelists has been radicalising local Islamic communities in many countries including India.

An unplanned offshoot of Saudi Arabia's undeclared religious war is the rise of the IS, (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a caliphate that is out to capture the world by force). The ground was prepared for them, first, by the Bush profiteers who created a war to milk Iraq's oil resources and, then, by Saudi Arabia's putsch to establish Sunni dominance over Iraq's Shias and Syria's ruling Alawi sect. An entire generation in the region has been brutalised by Saudi machinations.

From Wahabism's rise in the 18th century and the founding of the Saudi Kingdom in 1932 to the rise of IS in 1999, Saudi Arabia has been the principal incubator of the terrorism that gentlemen like Donald Trump now condemn. But they dare not point a finger at Saudi Arabia. For a moment Trump sounded like he was finally calling a spade a spade when he told the aforementioned Summit: "No discussion on stamping out terrorism would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three [essentials] -- safe harbour, financial backing, and social standing for recruitment". A perfect profile of Saudi Arabia, but Trump hastened to say: "I am speaking of course of Iran". What relief! Ironically, Trump and his Saudi hosts attacked Iran just when the only democratic election in the region saw the re-election in Iran of a modernist-moderate, Hassan Rouhani, over a hardline cleric.

But Trump's rhetoric is fully understandable. He is a deal-maker with his mind focussed on money. Saudi Arabia agreed to buy US weapons worth $ 100 billion. It agreed to invest $ 350 billion in America. It agreed also to give $ 100 million to a woman's business fund promoted by Lady Trump. That's real money. For Trump the embrace of Saudi Arabia is the embrace of money. America First as he proclaims.

What about us? Our joint projects with Iran -- the Chabahar port, gas pipelines -- are of great value not only economically but also strategically considering China's parallel activities with Pakistan. Smart nations find ways to pursue their bilateral interests without letting third parties come in the way. We let the America First approach come in the way of what should be an India First stance with Iran.




Monday, May 22, 2017

The manner in which Hindi is promoted hasn't helped national unity. One-sided policy has hindered it


Was it necessary to kick up the Hindi controversy all over again? A better model was available to the authorities. Within a fortnight of the Modi Government taking office, a circular had gone round Central Government offices asking for Hindi to be used in social media. Protests rose from non-Hindi states and the PMO quickly doused the fire by explaining that the circular was only meant for Hindi-speaking states. Earlier this month, in an apparent bid to prove more loyal than the king, the Official Language Committee headed by Kiran Rijuju proposed -- and the President of India approved -- that all dignitaries give their speeches/statements in Hindi only (meaning that those who did not do so in Hindi would not be considered dignitaries), that flight announcements be in Hindi followed by English (that is how it is now, so what was the need to rub it in?) Minister Rijuju said "we are not imposing Hindi, only promoting it like any other language". Like any other language? What's his most recent move to promote Telugu or Konkani?

It is part of Hindi chauvinism to assume that South Indians are anti-Hindi. They are not. They have heartily welcomed cinema, television, sports and latterday phenomena like migrant labour that spread spoken Hindi across the region. What blocks Hindi are two other obstacles. First, the air of superiority of the Hindiwalla, especially when he has precious little to be superior about. Secondly, the advantage people from Hindi states get in the job market.

In 2016 the official Sarkari Naukri Portal advertised hundreds of thousands of jobs -- total government vacancies 2,73,879, graduate government jobs 82,319 and so on. When applicants for these jobs are processed, candidates whose mother tongue is Hindi get a natural advantage over those from non-Hindi areas, irrespective of professional qualifications. It is a pity that the over-enthusiastic Rijuju does not understand the bread-and-butter implications of Hindi.

Even as Rijuju was busy promoting "all" the languages, another patriot went to the Supreme Court with the plea that the Centre, the states and Union territories be asked to make Hindi compulsory for class I to VII students across the country "to promote national unity". The Court not only refused to entertain the plea; it noted that the petitioner was a spokesman of the BJP's Delhi chapter and asked: "Why does he not ask his party to do it? He is part of the Government". For that matter, why does he not ask about the three-language formula, enshrined as state policy in 1968, which requires people in Hindi-speaking states to study Hindi, English and a modern Indian language. How many in UP have studied English and another Indian language? A one-way perspective supported by arrogance cannot "promote national unity".

Other countries march ahead of us by being practical, not chauvinistic. In 2001 China made English a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools. English also became a required subject, along with Mandarin and mathematics, for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. Today nearly 94 percent of students who have to study a foreign language choose English. This has been a factor in China's march in recent years to world leadership.

Inspiring was the example set by Indonesia, a country of 17,500 islands with 260 "vigorous" languages and 350 declining languages. As much as 45 percent Indonesians are Javanese. And yet the leadership of the freedom movement, though dominated by Javanese, decided that independent Indonesia should not have a system that would give undue advantage to the Javanese and their language. So they chose as the national language a Malay-Jawi mix and gave it a neutral name, Bahasa Indonesia. To clinch the unifying reform, they also adopted the Roman (Latin) script for the new Bahasa. That was patriotism true and proper.

The only Indian leader who had that kind of vision was Subhas Chandra Bose. In the Haripura session of the Congress in 1938, Bose as President mooted the idea of adopting Roman script for Hindustani. He explained how Kamal Atatuk's decision to introduce Roman script in Turkey had worked wonders in that country. Of course the Congress simply ignored the idea. It was Mahatma Gandhi, a Gujarati, who proposed that Hindi be the national language with Devanagari script. Instead of uniting India, it has proved divisive because Hindi is promoted with neither the pragmatism of Subhas Chandra Bose nor the wisdom of the Javanese. All that the promoters have is a blinkered view of nationalism -- and we keep paying for it.